Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein had a roomful of construction stakeholders enthralled at the CanaData conference held recently in Toronto, delivering withering criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump, lamenting press abdication of responsibility, talking NAFTA and even offering up a few Watergate insights for good measure.
Trump was branded as "ignorant," though smart enough to get elected, and holding power in a "malignant presidency" that has metastasized, said Bernstein. Trump is unwilling to deal factually in the world around him and is guilty of "systematic lying."
"Who is Donald Trump? He is the same man he has been all his adult life," said Bernstein. "He thinks he can act with the same impunity as president as he did in business."
Bernstein, the keynote speaker at the Sept. 21 CanaData East construction forecast event, was billed as speaking on Applying Lessons from the Past to the Current Muddled Political Environment. The author and current CNN analyst is most noted for writing some 200 articles for the Washington Post with colleague Bob Woodward beginning in 1972 documenting the Watergate Hotel break-in and subsequent cover-up by the Richard Nixon administration, eventually prompting the president to resign from office. Woodward and Bernstein’s best-seller All the President’s Men was turned into an Academy Award-winning movie.
Bernstein’s 1992 essay The Triumph of Idiot Culture, decrying manufactured controversies and sensationalism, served to presage the current era.
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist
That culture continues to thrive today, Bernstein said, and it was plainly on display as the U.S. media covered the presidential nomination process and then the election campaign. Not one media outlet did a thorough investigative profile of any of the candidates in either party before the nominating conventions were held, he said. Then, instead of using editorial judgment and deciding what was newsworthy, the incurious networks decided to give candidate Trump extensive open coverage of his campaign rallies, said Bernstein.
"He is a creation of the press," said Bernstein. "He is a creation of bad journalism.
"In some ways we should be grateful for his tweets because they are a roadmap to his mind."
The media seems to have abandoned seeking the "best obtainable version of the truth," said Bernstein, although there is still good journalism being undertaken by such sources as the New York Times, the Washington Post and Mother Jones. But in general, the majority of U.S. media falls victim to heightened partisanship and "ideological warfare."
"It’s becoming impossible to have a fact-based debate, a truth-based debate," he said.
"We cannot agree what the existing conditions are that we are debating, and that is afflicting and undermining the very nature of our democracy."
Construction stakeholders looking for insights into how the trade file and the NAFTA renegotiation would track during the Trump regime heard Bernstein describe a possible positive scenario. The president does appear to listen to his advisors at times and has occasionally backtracked on policies like immigration if presented with convincing evidence, he said.
So despite Trump’s "almost purposeful ignorance and unwillingness to do the hard work" to learn about such policies as how world trade has evolved post-Second World War, there is a chance that Trump will back down from the protectionist measures he has been promising, Bernstein said.
What Trump got right, said Bernstein, is identifying that America’s institutions are corrupt and failing, and cater to the needs of elites. The 73-year-old journalist twice referred to the Wells Fargo scandal as symbolic of the failures of the current age.
"Trump was not wrong in the notion that working-class white people in the United States in the past 30 to 40 years have been screwed," said Bernstein.
During a question and answer session moderated by Daily Commercial News national managing editor Vince Versace, Bernstein was asked what principles of leadership construction stakeholders attending the conference should take note of given the current era of uncertain leadership.
"One of the things that has happened in Western democratic culture is a fear of being open and truthful, by leaders, for fear of failure," Bernstein commented.
"We need to be able to make mistakes. I am not talking about mistakes that come from malevolent places. But we have evolved, I believe, into a culture in which mistakes are not easily absorbed or forgiven, and the result is an increase in the likelihood of a culture of untruth, or secrecy.
"My advice is to find a way to be as transparent as we can, as open and honest as we can."
But that was it for business or trade inquiries — the delegates wanted insights into Watergate from the man who helped bring down a president and Bernstein obliged them at several junctures. He said one morning he and Woodward were having coffee and planning next steps in dealing with the editors.
"I said to Woodward, ‘Oh my god, this president is going to be impeached,’" he recalled. "And I felt a chill, literally a chill like I have never felt before or since, run down my neck. And Woodward looked at me and said, ‘Oh my god, you’re right. And we can never use that term or say anything about impeachment around this newspaper, or people will think we have an agenda,’ and we didn’t."